By Joseph Santoliquito
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Takeru Kobayashi doesn’t look like a bottomless gullet by any means this weekend afternoon. The international eating star is serenely sitting with his hands folded over his knees in a barren hotel dining room with no food in front of him. For once.
Call this the calm before the Kobi storm.
He’s traveled the world, devouring everything in a frantic, world-record pace from spaghetti, to rice balls, pizza and hamburgers, to lobster rolls and sushi, to Twinkies. Oh yeah, and raw cow brains. He’s most famously known in the United States for his hot dog-eating exploits at the annual Nathan’s July Fourth Hot Dog Eating Contest, but Kobi is about to take on a new challenge, in a completely different venue than he’s ever encountered before, as the star attraction of Wing Bowl 20. And that includes a new food group — Buffalo wings.
Kobayashi, 33, has come light years from the fresh-faced college kid who defied a friend’s challenge to ingest a menu that included curried rice. He found this odd passion by happenstance after displaying his amazing ability on a Japanese TV show. When he’s not jamming large sums of food into his mouth, he’s actually a highly refined food connoisseur.
Today, he’s arguably the second-most famous pronounced “Kobi” in the world, right next to that “other” Kobe with the Philadelphia roots. On Friday, he’ll try to unseat three-time Wing Bowl champion Jonathan “Super” Squibb, while testing venerable warhorse Bill “El Wingador” Simmons, last year’s runner-up and former three-time champ and five-time overall winner who last won Wing Bowl 13 in 2005.
The trio of favorites may be distinctly diverse in background, but you’ll find one glaring similarity about them: They’re all in tremendous physical shape, like highly tuned athletes.
It’s a basic misconception many outsiders looking in fail to see. Don’t let Kobayashi’s cool veneer fool you, either. Underneath the approachable smile under his thick lock of jet-black hair lies a fierce competitor ready to uncoil. Kobi was once buried under slabs of muscle, some 75 pounds heavier than he is today.
“It is very close to power lifting and weightlifting, which are two things I’ve done in the past,” said Kobi, through manager Maggie James. “You need to train and convince yourself that you can do this. You have to trick yourself mentally that you can, because your brain isn’t telling you that you can eat all these wings for 10 days. For me, it’s always about going after your own records. I try to look for that equal counterbalance where physically and mentally you’re equal to the challenge. It’s all a matter of conditioning yourself.”
So Kobi has been conditioning. He’s eating 200 wings a day and honing his technique for what will probably be the most unusual eating contest in which he’s ever competed.
Squibb and Simmons are certainly looking forward to facing the legend. Squibb currently holds the record, 255, which he achieved last year. The 26-year CPA who competed for Rutgers’ crew team will not easily relinquish a title that’s very important to him.
“I’m aiming to be the first one in the history of Wing Bowl to win four straight; I like this challenge,” Squibb said. “I don’t shy away from it. I try to embrace it. It’s why I think it’s funny when people tell me about ‘my eating hobby.’ I don’t treat it like that. To me, it’s like an Olympic sport. If you think about it, it’s one individual who prepares and has one shot at it.
“Ask any Olympic athlete, they’ll say it’s 70-percent mental and 30-percent physical. I used to be a competitive rower for Rutgers and I competed at a high, Olympic-level. There’s that athletic side of me that comes out.
“I’m not discounting Kobi in any way. I only met him once, but from what I see in the media and reading in the blogs, a lot of people are claiming he’s the greatest eater in the world. Wings are a specialty and my best food group, so that gives me a shot at going up against one of the best in the world. It’s a great opportunity to prove myself against someone who has a great history of competitive eating. But this is my city, my town, my event, and I’m going against someone who is trying to take that away from me. I’m confident in my ability and know my opponents. I know Kobi is the headliner. So call me the underdog, though I’m the favorite. At the end of the day, it comes down to who eats the most wings.”
Simmons, 50, has competed against Kobi before, at the Glutton Bowl in 2002. But Simmons, popularly known as El Wingador, may be in the best shape he’s been in since first competing. He lifts 90 minutes a day, Monday through Friday, and is walking two miles on a treadmill. He knows age is against him, but Simmons views himself as the grizzled warhorse, the looming shadow in the showdown between Squibb and Kobayashi.
“Just call me Secretariat, the warhorse,” Wingador said with a bellowing laugh. “I have the advantage of being the veteran and Kobi is coming in as a rookie. I respect him as an eater, but I don’t know if he’s going to be able to negotiate these wings. I know Kobi is training like a madman. He’s going to study this and figure out the best way to compete.”
But Simmons added that the ambience of Wing Bowl will be far different from anything Kobi has ever previously encountered. It could be a vulgar frothing-at-the-mouth crowd, a far different lot than the masses he’s eaten before in New York City, which loves Kobi.
“This is a whole new ballgame,” Wingador said. “Don’t get me wrong, Kobi has been in a lot of big shows. But he’s going to have people yelling at him. I don’t know what this will do with his psyche, because this is Philly, and after all, Philly is about feeling. When I’m eating, I feel the energy from the crowd. That’s the only thing that bothers me is how Kobi will be received. I love him; I consider him a friend of mine. I want him to be well received. That’s important to me. I hope Philly represents itself well.”
Though Kobi has never eaten wings competitively, he’s eating 200 wings a day. He’s been watching videos of how Squibb and Simmons eat. He plans on putting on a show for the ages—making Wing Bowl 20 the most memorable.
Kobi is preparing a Philadelphia-themed entourage and float, with special Philadelphia sports celebrities as guests, his usual theme song, “Eye of the Tiger,” blaring and a surprise entrance featuring an august Philly staple leading him on to the Wells Fargo Center floor Friday morning.
“I’m practicing every day eating wings,” Kobi said. “It is true I never experienced what eating at the Wing Bowl is like, but I was there last year. To me, I guess there are ways that I consider myself an artist, in the sense that athletes and artists are alike. They are people that go to extreme places, and have extreme personalities. I’m entering this very, very focused.
“I’m coming here to bring this contest international. I’m hoping that Wing Bowl and Philadelphia shows itself in a good favor. I love Philadelphia. I’ve always enjoyed myself here. When I was up in New York last week, I didn’t have a really good idea of what the 20th anniversary of Wing Bowl might be like, but it’s becoming more and more real, and I’m getting real excited about how big and important Wing Bowl 20 will be. I’m ready. In my imagination, I hope to show the fans that I can shock their imaginations and make news on a new kind of level. Depending on the judging, I hope that I can eat over 300 wings.”
LISTEN TO ANGELO CATALDI INTERVIEW KOBAYASHI: